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The Sanctuary at Edinburgh Infirmary is a place apart, for contemplation and worship, for people of all faiths and none. Its symbolism was a challenge for artist and designer Donald Urquhart

People - patients, family, friends, staff - come to The Sanctuary at Edinburgh Infirmary for reflection, or for personal or group religious observance; maybe just to take a breather, maybe to contemplate matters of life and death. In multicultural and multifaith-or-none Britain, Donald Urquhart and the chaplaincy aimed to give The Sanctuary appropriate resonance through a rich, elemental symbolism, making reference to nature and through the allusiveness of artworks.

Urquhart, an artist, here also lead designer, was chosen from a shortlist of six. The project manager Gingko Projects had already been appointed and the shell of the space was largely a given. It was possible to reduce the rooflight area from half to about 25 per cent, running adjacent to the one wall.

Without a conventional design team it took time to build shared working methods and the trust that comes with them. As Tom Littlewood of Gingko Projects put it: 'The language, expectations and working processes of an arts-led project were an alien and unexplored territory for the hospital. The notion of letting an artist loose to work within a pressurised and complex construction project (the infirmary new-build generally) took some time to accommodate.' But they got there. Urquhart spent considerable time at The Sanctuary's predecessor, still-running, which had been built as a Christian facility. For The Sanctuary itself, one challenge was to make the space, reached down its own relatively low-ceilinged corridor, approachable to the hesitant individual while keeping approach and space open enough for up to 100 in communal worship. An obliquely angled entrance with an adjacent vision slot and held-open doors ease the transition into the main higher, lighter volume. And immediately inside in one corner is a part-enclosed niche, low-lit, with carpet and cushions on the floor, sized for an individual or a small group.

All the remainder of the main volume is timber-floored, white walled and ceilinged.

Several approaches are taken to structuring its space for the one, the group and the many. The pivotal object is Urquhart's hugely solid cube of Norden gray granite on a plinth of Indian black granite. In its timeless material and its geometry he hopes it will serve as as an object of contemplation, akin to stones in a Japanese gravel garden. Then, arrayed with a stainless steel cross, lectern and candle holders by Daniel Rooke, it serves as an altar for Christian ritual.

Although the cube is not central even to one wall, a space is defined around it by the translucent glass wall with blue stained glass by Ronald Ryan and polished walling by Urquhart himself. He gives the wall a deep luminosity, in part trying to counter the ungrounded, insubstantial feel he reads into the stud partitioning throughout the infirmary. There were also earlier thoughts of a water feature here but costs precluded it. Sounds based on a recording of a stream, by Lorna Waite, emanate from a bench nearby.

Other space-structuring in this multi-use space comes from moveable furniture. Some of Tom Roebuck and Anthony Jackson's chairs in Scottish ash combine with two triptychs of the horizon at sea by Iain Stewart to define a more-private corner. There is a bench of Douglas fir beams salvaged from the Royal National Hospital. And there are moveable low screens by Tom Scott, framed in sycamore with subtly indistinct drawings on acetate laminated between Perspex panels.

As well as the physical objects - cube, fittings, furniture - space is structured as in a church or gallery by the aura that the art objects create around themselves. There are other, specific pieces: a photo work by Susan Derges and a small burnt orange abstract by Rosemary Lesso. And on the wall opposite the altar (in formal use, the back wall) where this wall rises out of the direct line of sight to the skylight, Urquhart's array of 25 blue oilpainted panels draws the eye toward the sky.

None of this is interior design as we know it. Most architects would have made The Sanctuary more as one, the fabric of the space more integral, even making the contemplative atmosphere the content, as for example at the Rothko Chapel in Houston. In Edinburgh, the low-church setting (shades of Calvin? ) evokes the gallery as much as the church. Just as Urquhart was 'let loose', so he in turn has let loose the other artists. It is not intended as an integrated work, as was the Stirling-shortlisted An Turas project, the Tiree ferry terminal where Urquhart worked with Sutherland Hussey and other artists (AJ 18.9.03). The many points of contemplation do differentiate space for varied use. It is hard though to resist the architectural preconception to wish for a place more whole. Time will judge.

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